Brexit creeps closer

Comment by Sean Farrell220px-Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds.jpg

‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ The Brexit Endgame is approaching, with prospects all round ranging from unpalatable to disastrous so Dr Johnson’s remark seems appropriate, certainly in Ireland’s case.

Boris Johnson (no relation of Dr Samuel) was sworn in as Britain’s new Prime Minister on July 24. He hit the ground running – after a fashion – reaffirming, as he entered Downing Street, his intention, expressed during the Tory leadership contest, that he will take Britain out of the European Union by 31 October, with no deal, if that is what it takes. Any delusions that Johnson had merely been electioneering, and that, when the ‘reality’ of office dawned, he would backtrack rapidly on this and his other recent rhetorical utterances were soon dispelled. Over the succeeding days he handpicked a Cabinet stuffed with like-minded Brexiteers and/or pledged loyalists, and  brought in as chief adviser the mastermind of the 2016 Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings. Michael Gove, in tandem with Cummings, would be the Brexit enforcer.

In his first speeches Johnson reiterated and played up an intransigent image, painting himself as a man in a hurry. He has signalled where the blame will lie if he fails – with Europe, for failing to negotiate, and with Ireland for intransigence over the Backstop – something now declared by Johnson to be dead in the water, even in a time-limited version. His remarks have been addressed almost entirely to his base, and though he did include a litany of ‘one Britain’ targets across the socio economic spectrum when entering Downing Street, there were no details given as to how any of these promises would be paid for, beyond the predictable assertion that, in the event of no deal, the pay-out of €37 billion agreed with the EU for Britain’s departure would be withheld and thus available.

There are some disturbing echoes here of Trump’s utterances and performance. Indeed arguably Johnson’s remarks outside Number Ten were a sugar coated version of Trump’s Inauguration speech with language similar to Making America Great Again and the pledge to reverse the years of self-doubt since the referendum. Several commentators have observed that in effect Johnson’s ploy is to act as if 2016 was yesterday and the revelations since of what Brexit entails have simply not occurred. Whatever about Johnson being no Trump – some analogies are being drawn – he is certainly no Churchill, whose spirit he invokes, though in one sense there is a similarity of circumstance. Churchill came to power at a time of great peril for Britain. Johnson has taken over as Britain faces its worst crisis since World War Two. The difference is that the current crisis situation has been self-inflicted.

Whither now?

From the point of view of the Zealots now running Britain (who beforehand would have thought Johnson a Zealot?) the benign scenario is that in the last analysis the EU, whether Johnny Foreigner in Brussels, Berlin, Paris or Rome, and the Irish closer to home, will come around and give Britain a better deal, allowing it to achieve some form of Manifest Destiny, and/or restore some of its lost position in the world. This belief is underpinned by the notion that ‘They’ need us more than ‘We’ need them, and also that ‘We’ are the victims. Classic stuff!

Should the united front of the EU 27 hold firm, the gung–ho Brexiteers would be happy to see Britain make a clean break and leave on the basis of ‘No Deal’ and to hell with the consequences for country or party. The negative effects on the British economy and people of doing this are downplayed or rubbished. Consequences, after all, are for common people! Also to hell with the substantial Remain majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is increasingly clear that Brexit is predominantly an English nationalist phenomenon (with some DUP hangers-on).

Not a very promising vista, yet there is one consideration, which should not be overlooked. Johnson is a politician who has achieved his great ambition. He has now nailed his colours very firmly to the mast. But he must be well aware of the unhappiness in Parliament and the Commons majority against a No deal; he simply does not have the numbers to force any controversial measure through. Given that he has so far staked all on one throw in the coming weeks, should he fail to deliver on an improved deal (the scapegoats are already fingered), rather than compromise (which would doom him), he might have no option but to play the nationalist card and engineer an election, hoping that a mix of ‘My Country Right or Wrong,’ claims of betrayal and intransigence from the EU and an abhorrence and fear of seeing Jeremy Corbyn coming into power, might see him win out.

There is still clearly some sand left to run. The EU position, reiterated in reaction to Johnson’s opening salvo, is that there is a deal on the table, the product of two year’s negotiations involving and agreed to by the May government and acceptable to the EU 27, but thrice rejected by the British Parliament, and that this agreement must figure in any discussions. This deal includes provisions specifically to protect the Good Friday Agreement, which cemented peace on the island of Ireland after decades of violence, by providing for the avoidance of a physical border in Ireland, through if necessary the Backstop guarantee. Any negotiations that might occur will have to incorporate and address the Good Friday Agreement. We seem set for some type of Johnson-style shuffling pavane around this; though how soon?

Meanwhile (Dr Johnson again) the Irish Government has woken up to the potential nightmare of No Deal. In the Brexit Contingency Plan, a lengthy paper published early last month, an attempt was made to guesstimate the dire consequences for Ireland of Britain crashing out of the EU on October 31 without a deal. It painted a sombre picture; Ireland and her economy would be affected and widely felt across all sectors.

The three headline points:

  • In the first year economic growth in one of Europe’s most successful economies would be hammered, with the growth rate estimated to be 3% less than otherwise.
  • There would be a headline deficit of up to 1.5% in GDP in the year producing deterioration in the General Government Balance of up to €6.5 billion.
  • Unemployment in the most exposed sectors is estimated to increase by 50-55,000, a whopping 38% increase on the current figure of 131,000.

The paper observes that ‘a no deal Brexit will have profound implications for Ireland on all levels.’ A masterpiece of understatement.

And Now …

I wrote the above just after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Despite some comic opera antics among British politicians, up to the end of September nothing substantial had changed. Johnson, aided by Dominic Cummings, the eminence grise of the Brexiteers, has flailed around since July to no effect, seeking to advance his objectives of securing a satisfactory deal for Britain’s departure and also to set the scene for an early general election where the omens for a Tory victory, and therefore Johnson’s continued premiership, still look good.

Despite the clear indications that both parts of Ireland would suffer serious economic damage – potentially much more than Britain itself – in the event of Britain crashing out, Johnson’s attempts to bully Ireland and her EU partners into backing down on the Backstop have failed. Johnson’s bluster and the bad mouthing of Ireland in the British tabloid press have not helped, souring bilateral relations. Ireland’s 2020 Budget, to be announced on 8 October,  will be largely predicated on a hard Brexit with resources. that could have been better used elsewhere, earmarked to alleviate at least some of the anticipated damage, particularly Ireland’s beef industry which faces devastation .

Domestically Johnson has been reined in by a Commons majority unwilling to see Britain crash out and equally unwilling to gift him an early general election. Legislation – the Benn Act – will require him to seek an extension to Britain’s membership beyond 31 October with, as I write, Johnson tweeting, a la Trump, that Britain will leave on that date.

With the EU also making clear that it would not compromise on its fundamental institutions of the Customs Union and the Single Market to pander to an ungrateful Britain, Johnson suddenly shifted tack at the beginning of October, floating an offer to Brussels and Dublin that would inter alia keep Northern Ireland aligned to the Single Market in essential areas for a minimum of four years, which could be extended if the local elected assembly at Stormont agreed. The offer has been criticised as inadequate and unworkable but discussions are continuing and the next ten days could see further developments (in practice probably some further movement from the British side) before the crucial European Council on 17 and 18 October. A deal is by no means impossible though on balance unlikely.

This one will go down to the wire.

Sean Farrell is a retired Irish diplomat. He divides his time between Ireland and Spain. He has been writing columns for two Irish American periodicals for a decade. His website is paleoutlaw.com


  1. I often use Dr. Johnson’s memorable quote as well. Like Britain, the U.S. may be in for a hanging under a man named Donald Trump, who is more and more looking like a clone of Boris Johnson, or vice versa. What have our great nations come to, that we have so many voters who vote with Muddled Heart rather than Orderly Brain. I’m actually more concerned about this mass of voters so easily manipulated by misinformation than I am about the National Insults they are electing at present. The Insults may one day be gone, but these voters will still be around to be hoodwinked by guileful politicians. Social networks, prime source for electioneering these days, more often are designed for Muddled Heart rather than Orderly Brain.

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